Sublime: What got you into sustainable fashion design?
Kate Morris: I originally trained as a fine artist with a hobby of hand knitting alongside. My creative drive shifted into wanting to create functional items of beauty, so I decided to turn my hobby into my career. This coincided with the Rana Plaza disaster which really awoke me to how critical the problems were in the fashion industry and I knew I wanted to be a part of changing this. I decided to educate myself in sustainable fashion through a common route – starting by watching ‘The True Cost’ film and attending ‘Fashion Revolution’ events. My whole design practise has been motivated by wanting to contribute to changing attitudes to fast fashion since.
The world simply does not have enough resources to carry on producing clothing through the industries’ current systems. I believe sustainable fashion is possible if all areas of the supply chain work together, led by the designer, to make more informed choices. For me, this does not have to lead to limitations, I consider this as an opportunity to generate unexpected designs with a story that the consumer can connect with.
S: What do you think has been your biggest achievement in sustainable fashion so far?
KM: I’ve recently completed a Master’s degree in Fashion Knitwear Design at Nottingham Trent University where I specialised in sustainable design within digital knitwear production. It was here I had the opportunity to enter the EcoChic Design Award – the world’s largest sustainable design competition that I have just been crowned as first prize winner for. I was selected from applicants across 46 countries to represent the UK in the grand finals where my collection of upcycled knitwear made completely from textile waste was showcased on the runway during Hong Kong Fashion Week.
S: Talk us through your EcoChic Design Award collection
KM: The competition brief was to create a collection made completely from textile waste. The concept behind my EcoChic collection is technology and hand craft working together in harmony. Part of the collection was made on the latest digital knit machinery from discarded ex-industry yarn. I then worked back into these with hand craft techniques like crochet, embroidery and smocking to create a tactile connection with the wearer. Other parts were hand knitted from strips of yarn cut from discarded jersey t-shirts. I hope the crafted elements inspire people to get making and reusing – using an old t-shirt could be a low cost first knitting project. I also included traditional darning as a design feature that I hope will encourage people to mend their existing wardrobe instead of throwing it to landfill.
I feel technology and hand craft both have important roles in sustainable production.
I love how up-scalable a design is once it’s been programmed into industry standard knitting machines. I am inspired by how technology can increase production efficiency and cut out unnecessary labor. At the same time, I would like to involve smaller maker communities with less access to technology who can learn a timeless skill that could be passed down generations and even go into their own businesses.
Each garment has been shaped as its knitted and does not require any cutting. Each one is also made from a singular pattern piece joined together with minimal seams. This increase knit time efficiency, comfort and longevity. I have tried to consider the full life cycle of the garments; the care labels have been knitted into the jacquard patterns promoting low impact use and disposal. I have used only one fiber type to make it easier to eventually recycle. The whole collection has been made from cotton to make it suitable for the vegan market and so it can be worn between seasons across the globe.
S: What inspired the colour and pattern in this collection?
KM: A lot of my inspiration for my EcoChic collection came from my fine art background and visiting art galleries. I looked at a lot of pop art visuals of food and was interested in how people’s attitudes to food have changed; consumers want to know where their food has come from and exactly what’s in it, this is now being applied to clothing. I was really drawn to the kitsch visuals of retro food adverts from when processed tinned foods and salad jellies were seen as the height of sophistication.
S: What has the competition bought you?
KM: Creating my EcoChic collection transformed my view of what upcycling can achieve. I wanted to challenge myself to use waste as a starting point as this was something I’d not explored before. When applying sustainable design approaches I had struggled with the high cost of materials so loved the idea of using waste to create a more affordable collection that could become more accessible to others. I learnt how easy it is to source luxury materials the industry considers as waste, companies were really keen to get involved - I was doing them a favor by taking the materials off their hands. Within the first week I knew what I would be working with. Quality control is so high in industry, especially within yarn mills, the cones of yarn I received were a very slightly imperfect dye lot or yarn twist, they were in brand new condition and any consumer will never notice these tiny defects.
The week of the grand finals hugely broadened my mind-set and horizons alongside meeting so many fantastic people. I learnt a lot about the impact of customer care and waste management on a huge industrial scale through various design challenges, especially during our visit to TAL, one of the biggest shirt manufacturers in the world. Winning first prize has bought me the valuable opportunity to work and learn with influential platform brand ‘BYT’ that will enable me to make a change within the industry. My collection is also now going on display as part of an installation in Hong Kong’s iconic department store Lane Crawford.
S: Tell us about your brand CROP
KM: My master’s degree collection has launched CROP, my cruelty-free, fun-filled vegan knitwear brand. CROP is sustainably sourced and ethically made, long lasting, happiness inducing fashion. It intends to break expectations with plant based knitwear that can be worn across multiple seasons, relevant to the global needs and beliefs of today’s generation. After extensive research into what will make the smallest carbon, chemical and water footprint I chose the super skin friendly fibres of Organic Cotton, Bamboo and Tencel for the first collection.
S: Why did you decide to create a vegan collection?
KM: I spent my master’s degree researching into the growing vegan fashion market and the reasons behind boycotting animal fibres. As a knitwear designer, the idea of leaving wool behind was initially quite daunting for me. The more I read about inhumane practises in wool farming (e.g. genetically modifying sheep, mulesing, the funnelling of wool sheep into the meat market and the effects on sheep’s predator species) as well as the negative environmental effects (methane emissions, land erosion, water and chemical use in farming and the intensive wool processing stages) the more my fibre choices aligned with my reasons for initially choosing a vegan diet. I have found working around this challenge incredibly rewarding, there has been huge recent developments within plant based fibre production and I have tried out yarns that come from sources such as eucalyptus trees, banana branches and orange peel! The industry has seen a dramatic shift into vegan leather alternatives such as pineapple and mushroom leather and I really believe that there is soon to be a shift away from wool.
S: What are your future plans?
KM: I am currently looking into working with start-up company ‘Kniterate’ who are producing affordable compact digital knitting machines aimed at enabling small labels to create custom made/small runs and bring local manufacturing back to their neighbourhoods. When exploring conventional manufacturing routes, so far I have been stunted by high minimums and the struggles of maintaining a transparent supply chain/ connection with my product’s story. I feel this is a very exciting time to be in fashion. I feel that sustainable fashion design is rapidly becoming the normal practice and any brand who is not following this does not have much longevity.